Ex-Beam CMO on Booze Trends and Why He Left for an Agency

Kevin George Joined Experiential Shop Mosaic Late Last Year

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Kevin George, chief marketing officer and president of Mosaic
Kevin George, chief marketing officer and president of Mosaic Credit: Mosaic
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Kevin George has spent more than 25 years in marketing -- almost all of it on the client side working for companies including Seagram, Unilever and Beam Suntory. Last year he jumped into the agency world, taking a job as president and chief marketing officer of Mosaic, a fast-growing shop specializing in experiential and content creation. In doing so, he gained some new perspective on his old client-side role.

"The timelines that clients give agencies is really unreasonable in general. Time tends to produce better creative and I start to appreciate that on this side," he said.

Those were among the insights Mr. George shared with Ad Age in an interview from the Chicago office of Mosaic, where the shop is headquartered. Mosaic is owned by Acosta, a giant sales and marketing company that serves as the outsourced sales arm for major consumer-packaged goods companies. Mr. George's responsibilities include serving as CMO of Acosta.

Mosaic -- whose clients include Procter & Gamble, Coca Cola, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Microsoft, Best Buy and Diageo -- has grown from 1,972 employees in 2015 to 2,487 this year. Mosaic in June acquired Los Angeles-based content company Contend. The shop's clients include Netflix, for which it crafted a 1980s-influenced promotional campaign for the hit show "Stranger Things."

Mr. George left Beam Suntory late last year after serving as the liquor marketer's global chief marketing officer. He joined Beam in 2009 after a career at Unilever where he was VP-general manager for Unilever's deodorant and health care business. He was known for spearheading unconventional marketing campaigns for Axe body spray.

In the interview from Mosaic's new office in Chicago's bustling West Loop neighborhood, Mr. George discussed trends he witnessed as a liquor marketer, while offering insights into how the experiential business is changing. Here is a lightly edited transcript:

Advertising Age: Why did you leave Beam?

Mr. George: The agency world is a such an important part of the marketing ecosystem. I had run a business at Unilever for 13 years. I had done the global CMO role and I didn't understand the agency side of the world as well as I wanted to, given everything that goes on in marketing. For me the opportunity was to go and do something different and learn something new.

Ad Age: In your time at Beam, what was the biggest change you saw in spirits marketing?

Mr. George: I think it got more professional, and more CPG-like, from the time I got there to the time I left. And I don't mean just at Beam, I mean overall. I think Diageo probably led the way and the others came in behind it.

The spirits industry for a long, long time had been really, really sales and distributor driven … It wasn't brand driven. What changed mostly in the time I was there is that spirits companies became brand-driven entities. They went far more directly to the consumer and didn't have to rely on the distributors as much as they did.

Ad Age: What drove that?

Mr. George: Better talent in marketing … the leadership at the different companies understanding that they need to build brands and operate like true big brands and not just a manufacturing and distribution system. And you had some CEOs like Matt Shattock who came in at Beam who was a brand stalwart, came from brands and understood that brands need to be built. And obviously the advent of more exposure on television and more exposure in video and the ability to market differently.

Ad Age: Liquor brands gained better access to TV advertising because rules loosened, right?

Mr. George: The networks loosened. And when it opened up TV that was really great. Before if you were in the spirits business all you had was print advertising and out of home, because you really didn't go on television for a long, long time. And then all of the sudden TV opened up. That was kind of nice. But everybody was like I don't really need that much TV because I have all these other video outlets now through internet and social and everything else. The idea of video really expanded and allowed manufacturers to go direct to consumers -- and that really wasn't there even six or seven years ago.

Ad Age: What has been your biggest surprise working for an agency?

Mr. George: It is a human supply chain. How you use people is really important. And understanding that is really important -- and how you make money. When a brand manager goes to sleep at night at Jim Beam, someone is still pulling a Jim Beam bottle off the shelf somewhere in a store and you are making money. When someone here goes to sleep at night you stop making money because they are not working.

Coming from the client side you just call your agency with a week to go and you are like, 'Hey, you gotta get this done and they figure out how to get it done.' The timelines that clients give agencies is really unreasonable in general. Time tends to produce better creative and I start to appreciate that on this side.

Ad Age: Did you understand that when you were on the other side?

Mr. George: I don't think I did. You took it for granted that the agency would get it done. And they actually do.

Ad Age: What is the biggest trend in experiential marketing?

Mr. George: The automation in the world and specifically in marketing technology is going to cause people to have more need for human connection. The idea that people are always looking at a screen and always being bombarded and there are ad blockers and all that going on … I actually realized it at Beam. Because when I was there we built the $30 million Jim Beam experience down in Clermont, Kentucky. And I saw the fact that people were choosing to go there, that people wanted to interact with the brand. People aren't buying your brand, they are buying the experience your brand creates for them … On the experiential side of the business we basically do that everyday all over America for a bunch of brands, just on a smaller scale.

And adjacent to that trend is the fact that people want to share that experience. And so the content that gets created by experiences that people have with brands, or companies, or places, or people, then turns into content. We like to say that experiential is the production cost of authentic content. So if you look at the work we did with Bud Light -- "Whatever USA" -- that entire experience was captured. Content was captured … and then distributed either by people who were there, or by us ourselves.

Ad Age: Does all of the content Mosaic creates come from the events you create?

Mr. George: We go beyond that. We create content for our events as a way to distribute it. But then we also create content like for Microsoft we are doing a bunch of films.

The other thing we are doing is, we have this idea of a content warehouse like we do for certain brands like Bud Light. So the challenge that brands have is their video content sits with all these agencies. What we have created is this content warehouse which allows people to put all their video content [in one place]. They just get all their agencies to drop it in in one place. We tag it, we catalogue it, we make sure it's approved by legal. So if I am a social media person managing a community for a brand, I can go grab that piece of video content and know it's approved, I know I have the rights … and just get it out of this content warehouse, rather than going to try to find that agency that's got the one thing I need … So we have all of Bud Light's video, basically. We house it all in our content warehouse.

Ad Age: A big story going on with agencies are the turf battles. Agencies are not staying in their silos of PR, creative, digital, etc. It sounds to me like you guys are doing some things a creative agency would do, or a digital agency. Is that accurate?

Mr. George: Sure. We are more at the table now with certain clients than probably we ever have been. It's not a turf battle, though. We play really well in the sandbox with all the other agencies. No matter where the core creative idea comes from, we will either execute the experiential part or the content part of that, whatever they want us to do, and sometimes we come up with the idea.

Ad Age: You are owned by Acosta. Explain what they do.

Mr George: Acosta is the largest sales and marketing services business in the United States. What they essentially do is they are the outsourced sales arm of 75% of the major CPGs in the Unites States. Procter and Gamble, Kellogg's, Conagra, Mondelez -- they are the sales force, the feet on the street, merchandising headquarter calls, arterial calls, category management, all that -- for all those clients.

Ad Age: How does Mosaic benefit from Acosta?

Mr. George: We work closely with Acosta's CPG clients. We have a good amount of our revenue which comes from CPG clients which are buying our other services ... When we go pitch a client we deliver an integrated sales and marketing solution for them.